Water scarcity is a major concern in Kenya with water management experts stressing the need to utilise every drop of it.
At the University of Nairobi, we found 28-year-old Lindah Karea, who has been working on water desalination technologies as part of her masters’ degree in nuclear science.
Part of her thesis focused on applications of nuclear and other technologies in water desalination.
She talks about what to expect as a water desalination specialist.
Lindah attended Meru Junior Primary School where she scored A. In 2002, she joined Sacred Heart Girls’ High School, Kyeni, Embu County, scoring (A-). At the University of Nairobi between 2008 and 2013, she pursed a Bsc in Environmental and Bio-systems Engineering. It is on this basis that she got a scholarship to study a master’s degree in nuclear science.
What is water desalination?
It refers to the process of removing salt particles such as sodium chloride from water to make it soft for drinking and other usage.
Through water desalination, unusable water such as sea water and brackish (saline) water can be refined to become utilisable.
The most commonly used methods are thermal and membrane processes. Thermal desalination uses heat energy from various sources to evaporate water to separate vapour from salts before condensing the vapour.
The membrane method usually uses reverse osmosis. The membrane allows water molecules pass through it, but not the salts, hence separating both.
How did you end up in the science of water desalination?
My first degree was in environmental and bio-systems engineering, with a specialisation in water and irrigation, so when I proceeded with my master’s studies, I naturally wanted to build on the same.
I undertook water desalination as a research project in partial fulfilment of my MSc in nuclear science.
Why did you choose to be an engineer in environmental and bio-systems engineering?
I chose the course because I was passionate about environmental conservation. In high school, it upset me to see plastic waste paper scattered all over place.
I approached my chemistry teacher, and together, we came up with an innovative project where the plastics were broken down by heating them in high temperatures.
We then used gaseous products such as ethane for production of ethanol, a biofuel. The innovation was awarded first position in the Kenya National Science Congress in 2006.
Which subjects do you need to focus on for a career in environmental and bio-systems engineering?
One needs a strong background in pure and applied sciences - biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics to study courses such as technology, engineering (civil engineering, environmental and bio-systems engineering, mechanical engineering).
How does Nuclear Science relate to water purification?
The application of nuclear technology in water desalination is very specific when it comes to the source of heat energy used to evaporate water, namely, a nuclear power plant.
What is the importance of water desalination?
It provides a solution to address water scarcity due to its ability to make unusable water resources such as sea-water, brackish water, highly saline ground water and polluted surface water fresh water.
How does nuclear technology apply in water desalination?
Nuclear based techniques such as X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) are applied in the analysis of the quality of the desalinated water.
The interest is to make sure that the product meets the recommended standards for human consumption.
What challenges face Kenya for lack of nuclear science in water desalination?
It is not possible to undertake nuclear desalination in Kenya for the obvious reason that we do not have a nuclear power plant yet, however, even the available methods are under-utilised because of the high cost of technology.
For example, one unit set up of membrane technology that can serve a small community of approximately 20 people can go up to Sh700,000.
If nuclear technology is embraced, what would be its greatest advantage?
Possibly boosting our sources of clean water especially within the areas in which the plants are established.
Take us through one project you have been involved in.
I have been involved in the design and fabrication of a desalination prototype.
For the desalination prototype, different components or subsystems are designed and tested: preheating of water, atomization (breaking up water into small droplets), evaporation chamber, condenser, and collection of distilled water.
What, do you think, is Kenya’s water problem?
Mismanagement. This ranges from storage, treatment, distribution, disposal of domestic and industrial waste, regulation and policy, all which affect water and its quality.
Other challenges are failing to prioritise the proper exploitation of the pre-existing sources such as underground water, desalination systems for saline water from boreholes in some areas, lakes and ocean.
What employment opportunities exist in this career?
One can get a job in government, non-governmental institutions, water management organisations and upcoming desalination plants at the Coast.
With a background in nuclear science, one can work in analytical labs, and in some specific ways, be of use in medical facilities equipped with radiology units, research facilities that use nuclear techniques.
You can be self-employed too, for example, in the field of radiation protection as a consultant in the design of facilities such as radiology unit bunkers, industrial X-ray bunkers and radiation measurements for public safety.
With further training, I can be an NDT inspector or setup a lab that uses nuclear techniques.
You are currently studying a PhD in Energy Storage Systems. How is this useful to our lives?
Energy is a critical contributor to the performance of activities, including water generation and distribution, and without its efficiency, the country would suffer economically and socially.
I look forward to discovering more efficient ways of utilising our natural and artificial energy sources.
Do you have any other skills or training?
I did CPA-K accounting course with YMCA in Meru County, before I joined University. In every project there is a cost implication, this knowledge helps me to spend wisely.
Advise young people who would want a career in your line.
Focus on sciences because they will place you on a path of opportunities to discover new horizons of science, innovation and technology methods to solve ever increasing social and economic problems.